The importance of learning a second (or third) language

Nelson Mandela – if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head … but if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.


Pushpa Venkatraman reflects from personal experience.

My daughter, who’s studying near Los Angeles, recently went with her friends to a small stall selling baos (dumplings). The lady at the counter couldn’t understand the order. So my daughter (who’d taken up Mandarin as a second language in school) ordered in Mandarin much to the stall lady’s surprise. They chatted for a bit after that.

Her experience made me reflect on the importance of learning a language. I admire Singapore’s vision of stressing the importance of second language in our multi-cultural society. I know it’s hard to do as an exam subject; I struggled with learning Tamil, but the persistence of working on mastering it has its own rewards.

Our son learned Spanish and we depended on him entirely for help with translation as we traversed the countryside and the hills of Alpuzharras in Spain. He was 10 years old.

My father is a lover of languages. He speaks, reads and writes all the 4 official languages of Singapore apart from German, Japanese and some of the Indian languages. During the Japanese occupation, he saved his family’s home from being raided by the soldiers thanks to his ability to converse in the language. They were so impressed by a 5 year old’s ability to speak  fluently that they just asked for water and left the family alone.

Being multi-lingual has given him several advantages – from getting to know people of different cultures to solving work related issues in a more harmonious way whether it was working in Hamburg, Singapore, Beijing or Johor Bahru. He enjoys the immediate establishment of one-ness when communicating with someone in their language.

Studies have shown that a second language increases the brain’s capacity to retain more information and improves multi-tasking. I end with this quote by Nelson Mandela – if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head … but if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Editor’s Note : A reflection of and for the times !

A day after this story was published, Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced the introduction of the Language Elective Program (LEP), a two-year programme that weaves in creative ways to learn Chinese, Malay or Tamil literature through immersion trips and camps. Until now only available at seven junior colleges, it will be offered in 15 secondary schools from 2020.  More schools will also be encouraged to offer conversational mother tongue programmes in the next one to two years, to open them to as many students as possible. “I call this Learning Languages For Life,” said Mr Ong, adding that bilingualism also has more economic value in booming Asia.

Read the article here.

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